By Christy Krueger
Few people on this planet have the patience, determination and persistence to pursue a goal through decades of constant roadblocks and challenges. Dr. Thomas Grogan, pathologist and founder of Ventana Medical Systems, is one of those rare human beings.
He’s now released a book, “Chasing the Invisible, A Doctor’s Quest to Abolish the Last Unseen Cancer Cell,” in which he tells of his long, winding journey to create a diagnostic tool that revolutionized cancer care.
According to Grogan, his greatest motivator to keep fighting through these barriers and bring his invention – and many other subsequent inventions – to market was realizing it would improve patient care in a very big way – and it was the right thing to do. “A righteous twig snapped and I eventually realized it applied globally,” he said.
His invention, which he started working on in his University of Arizona College of Medicine laboratory in the early 1980s, is an automated, standardized tissue biopsy diagnostic instrument that has resulted in more accurate and speedier test results for doctors and their patients. It also has helped lead to targeted, personalized therapies for patients that is becoming a standard of care in medicine today.
One of Grogan’s first major obstacles came in 1985, and if he hadn’t made it through this one, he claimed, “it would have been the end.” After applying for a business license to manufacture and sell his medical device, the university attorney told him he could be considered a Class 6 felon. At the time in Arizona, it was illegal for anyone to form a private business as a state employee. The state has since passed a law to allow university employees to form private ventures as long as the college is given an equity position.
After years of growing pains, the company began to make money and Grogan worried less about the rug being pulled out at every step. He enjoyed telling the stories – dozens of them – of his great adventure. Then one day in 2016, longtime employee Stacey Forbes approached him and urged him to write a book. “Stacey said, ‘Everyone should hear these stories outside the company.’ I didn’t think I had the energy, but Stacey did,” Grogan said. Thus, he took on another demanding mission – with a lot of support.
Grogan and Forbes had contacts in literature and communications who helped with editing and reviews. Those included Marty Hirsch, a recently retired employee of Roche in Switzerland, the pharmaceutical company that acquired Ventana in 2008. The company Grogan founded is now called Roche Tissue Diagnostics.
The manuscript was revised eight times – way beyond what Grogan expected when he took on the project, but it resulted in a high-quality product that’s readable and eye-opening for medical personnel and lay people alike.
“My goal with the book was to explain medical/technical things to people not in the medical/technical business. I had to remember who I was telling the story to,” Grogan said. This led to his idea about how to format the book and tie all the stories together. He would tell them to his mother as if he was re-living each one.
The book’s title came to Grogan early on. “In one of my stories my tech said, ‘We’re chasing the invisible.’ It was a good way to explain it to people. The subtitle came the week before settling on the ninth draft. To cure, you must get the last cell,” he explained.
Ironically, Grogan faced a personal blow shortly before starting the book – he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. One bright spot came when he found out the pathology lab where the diagnostic test was performed used Roche Tissue Diagnostics’ equipment.
Following cancer surgery, he became one of 900 patients to participate in a clinical trial at University of California, Los Angeles and other universities that studied whether immunotherapy should be given to patients in earlier stages of the disease. Previous practices limited its use to those with advanced stages. The outcome was so positive for immediate use of immunotherapy that it is now standard protocol for cancer patients who qualify. “Immunotherapy is the biggest revelation in my lifetime in cancer treatment,” Grogan said.
His book launch ceremony was held in December at Roche Tissue Diagnostics, where speakers honored and thanked Grogan for his accomplishments and contributions to the employment and economic health of the region. Dr. Eric Walk, chief medical officer at Roche Tissue Diagnostics, followed with a more personal note: “For over 15 years, I’ve known Tom and heard many stories. He has humility, sincerity and a commitment to improve the human condition.”
When asked if writing and publishing the book brings closure to his career, Grogan replied, “It’s icing on the cake. Looking back, tying the ribbon around it is gratifying. I’m happy it’s contained within the covers of a book.”